M. Théophile Delcassé:
The Man Who Undid The Work Of Bismarck

By W. Morton Fullerton

[The World's Work, January 1915]

It was in the last days of October, high up over the ocean at Sainte Adresse, the suburb of Havre, where an exiled King and Nation, hunted from their soil, had accepted the hospitality of a friendly Power.

I had spent the morning with the French Minister to Belgium, and, hastening to an appointment arranged for me with not the least important member of the Belgian Government, I was suddenly arrested on the way by a musical note alien to the French air. It was the sound of a bag-pipe accompanying the march of invisible men. An instant later there swung round out of a side street, into the avenue skirting the sea, a column of the new khaki-clad army of England. At the head a goat—or was it a unicorn?—followed by an officer on horseback. A score of terriers, fox and Scotch, careered yelping up and down the line. Suddenly the regiments, now filling the avenue in front of the brown battleships of France riding at anchor in the offing, broke forth into the song, "It's a long, long way to Tipperary." Five thousand English youths just landed on French soil were moving to the camp whence, within a day or a month, they were to be sent a few miles eastward into the trenches of Flanders. Had I ever, during twenty years of experience of men and things in Europe, amid the crises of continental, and even of world, history, felt a finer thrill of emotion than then and there at Havre, as the grandiose suggestiveness of the scene, passing before my eyes expanded to the limits of the vast horizon that framed the sublime picture? At my elbow stood a Belgian deputy and an official of the French Foreign Office. Turning to the French official, the Belgian said merely this, "That's the work of your Delcassé."

We climbed to the bluff of Sainte Adresse, and we had our audience with the Belgian Minister. That meeting, with the conversation that ensued, is another story; but one moment of the talk associated itself instantly with the scene I have just described. "Your Excellency," I ventured, "Belgium has saved Europe." Quick came the retort: "It is not Belgium that has saved Europe. The savior of Europe is M. Delcassé."

I thought of a letter that I had received in the early days of August from a British Minister. The President of the French Republic, M. Poincaré, and the French Prime Minister, M. Viviani, were in the Baltic, hurrying homeward after a visit to the Czar. The war-clouds were piling up in the European sky. The French Government was unable to communicate save by wireless telegraphy with the responsible heads of the State. My correspondent, tormented by natural fears born of this luckless situation, formulated his sense of the European plight as follows: "Where is Delcassé? It seems to me that he is needed at the Quai d' Orsay (the French Foreign Office). If he enters the Government now his coming will be worth a half-dozen army corps to the cause of France." The consequence of that communication is still another story; but this much may be said at present. I remember cabling in reply: "Not a half, but a whole round, dozen. Patience."

Part II

How happens it that at such a moment of crisis as Europe and the world have not confronted since the little Corsican was on his way from Elbe to Paris during the "Hundred Days," the name of the little Pyrenean was on the lips of Belgian and British statesmen as a name to conjure with? How happens it that in a France torn with the rivalries and jealousies of Parliamentary parties, a man who for years had been sedulously confined in Coventry as a danger to the State suddenly became in the popular mind the one man needful? We had seen him from the public galleries of the Palais Bourbon, during the field-days of debate, calm, almost indifferent, amid the surge of the passions of the hour. During the long years of the Moroccan difficulties between France and Germany, when the latter Power multiplied incident on incident in order to shatter the Entente between France and England, the statesman that was responsible for that Entente, and that had renewed the tradition of Rome, making of the Mediterranean a really Latin Sea, sat stolidly in his place, the least articulate of the 580 odd deputies charged with the interests of France.

When the Prime Minister, M. Clemenceau, although his rancorous foe, avenged M. Delcassé at Casablanca for his humiliating fall, by retorting to the German Ambassador's menace of war: "If your Excellency wants me to give him his passports, here they are in this drawer," no one knew what M. Delcassé himself thought of the European situation; no one took the trouble to find out. Like his great predecessor, Richelieu, exiled to Luçon from a Court jealous of his superiority, he watched and waited, biding the time when the fruit of his works should come to maturity. The alert little statesman—he is no taller than Napoleon—was always there, playing his anonymous part in the Parliamentary game, a model of party discipline. His staccato step in the lobby, his direct glance through the eye-glasses, his frank and unembarrassed manner, his readiness to listen, but his reticence in reply, all betokened the same energy, the same straightforwardness of purpose and intent, the same absence of all academic or doctrinaire priggishness, but the same diplomatic and statesmanlike composure, that had enabled him to secure for his country far-reaching diplomatic victories, and altered the balance of power in the European system. Yet with a grim resolution he held his peace. Not even in the Parisian press was his name ever seen counseling his countrymen. No interview kept him in the limelight. So silent was he, there were some who thought him dead. Yet beyond the line of the Vosges, of the Alps, and of the Pyrenees, and across the Channel, his figure was one of the few visible to the naked eye. To the foreigner he personified a regenerated France. And all competent observers of the drift of things knew that his burial was only an optical illusion, and that before long he would rise from the dead, to incarnate a new hope.

Part III

What, then, had M. Théophile Delcassé done to appear to merit among his own countrymen the obloquy that had exiled the great Richelieu to Luçon, and to attain this singular prestige in Europe? If the French had the mystic mental make-up of the superstitious, like their Prussian neighbors beyond the Rhine, who speak familiarly of their "good old German God" and of "their ally of Rosbach," they might have been tempted to read into the very name "Theophilos" a happy—or ironic—presentiment of the peculiar part to be played by M. Delcassé in their contemporaneous annals. The whole of France during the Middle Ages had lived by an ideal formulated in the famous Gesta Dei per Francos. But of late the complacent attitude of the Vatican in reminding Frenchmen that they were still, in spite of themselves, the chosen medium of God's vastest dreams, still the "Eldest Daughter of the Church," had only irritated them. They had chaffed under the responsible burden of the great heritage, and "Theophilus" Delcassé, as it happened, was, of all French politicians, perhaps, the last man to whom this suggestive surname could be applied with any chance of its awakening a happy or usefully superstitious frame of thought. What M. Delcassé had done, therefore, or what he had left undone, were tangible facts by which he had to stand or fall without any help from superstition or legend. His action on European affairs had been real enough to account for all that had befallen him, and for all that was still expected of him. What, I repeat, had that action been?

This question can be answered in a single sentence! Théophile Delcassé had undone the work of Bismarck. He had shattered the whole scaffolding on which Bismarck's successor, William II, had begun to build—draping it with a new blend of imperial scarlet—the whole structure of German world-power. This was no mean achievement, but it was an achievement and an honor that were thrust upon the French statesman, of whom, up to that hour, no one not distinctly interested in political matters had ever heard! Moreover, the characteristic thing about it was that almost until the deed was done no one—not even M. Delcassé himself—knew exactly what was doing.

In a very real sense he was, in spite of himself, another case under the general law of the Gesta Dei per Francos, but Heaven alone was aware of it. Not even the great King, Edward VII, who, cooperating with him, was taken by the Germans to be his accomplice, knew what they were both really doing. Thus was illustrated once again the certain truth that dawns inevitably on the mind of any serious investigator of human actions in history: the truth that the will of any one man is powerless to determine the march, or the arresting, of events; that the historical leaders of men are merely the instruments of forces that they cannot govern, but to which, willy-nilly, they must conform. The tendencies set in motion in Europe through, and not by, the so-called action of a Napoleon and a Bismarck were logically developed under the apparent direction, and at the only apparent initiative, of Théophile Delcassé—Delcassé consule. This is another story, a very dramatic story—and it is the particular story of this article.

Part IV

Théophile Delcassé "undid" the work of Bismarck. And in "undoing" that work, he did something else. In fact he undid what he undid because he was intent on doing just that "something else."

The Germans accused him of trying "to encircle" them. That was their own phrase, and they have now gone to war because they believe that they have really been "encircled." They even go further. They believe with absolute good faith not only that M. Delcassé tried to encircle them, hem them in, ensnare their Imperial Eagle, but also that, wittingly doing this, he acted as the accomplice, and perhaps at the instigation, of the King and Government of England. This is why, one day in 1905, they sent their emissaries, their commercial drummers, and their tourists into the north and east of France, and despatched their great bankers to Paris, discreetly to inform the leaders of public opinion, and even the then French Prime Minister, that unless M. Delcassé quitted the Quai d'Orsay there would be war. This is why the great Minister was sacrificed ruthlessly by a heedless people, and even by his comrades, on the altar of the German Moloch. The fall of M. Delcassé was a precedent for the treatment of international relations between two sovereign, self-respecting States which could obviously not be repeated without more than the grave risk of war. But what concerns us for the moment is that it could not have occurred at all unless the compatriots of the statesmen thus summarily sacrificed to the ultimatum and the exigencies of a foreign Power had all along been in ignorance of the nature of the victim's policy, and the character of the results of that policy.

What M. Delcassé had been doing had escaped them. And if proof be needed that even he himself little grasped what he had really been doing, it may be pointed out that, while laboring half-consciously with the Time-Spirit that presided over the logical development of European forces since Sadowa and Sedan, he failed to do the one thing which would have shown his complete consciousness of the nature of the forces at work. He never, in a word, sought at that time to provide France with the naval and military power that was the logical corollary of his diplomacy and his policy. It was only after he had been hurled from office by the German bolt that he clearly saw the bearing of the great things he had accomplished for France and for the liberties of Europe. The same bolt that opened his eyes shook the scales from the eyes of his compatriots and opened the eyes of Englishmen as well. His duty was plain. After long months of silence, suddenly M. Delcassé appeared at the Tribune of the French Chamber, and castigated the government of M. Clemenceau for leaving the navy in a state of inferiority. M. Clemenceau was, indeed, neglecting at that time certain of the vital national interests of France, just as certain of those interests had been neglected during five years before by the governments of which M. Delcassé himself had been a member. Thrust back into private life, after the eye-opening blow from the Prussian Mailed Fist, M. Delcassé beheld with complete lucidity certain consequences of his action that had escaped him when he was thinking solely of the diplomatic game. His solemn intervention on this occasion brought even the great Clemenceau down. And it is from that hour that should be dated the renaissance, the new-birth of a self-conscious France. Such a France was latent in all that happened during the period when President Loubet and M. Delcassé presided over the destinies of their country. An analysis of this point is necessary in order to show what M. Delcassé was really doing when he turned out to be undoing at the same time the work of Bismarck, and undermining the very foundations of Germany's foreign policy.

Part V

During the forty-four years of the Third French Republic four men, and four men alone, have left their mark on French foreign policy, from the point of view of world-history. There is Thiers and there is Jules Ferry and there are M, Hanotaux and M. Delcassé. Thiers in no wise concerns the present subject, for he directed French foreign policy at an epoch when France, still bleeding abundantly from the wounds in her side caused by the Prussian pound-of-flesh policy in Alsace-Lorraine, was virtually a German protectorate as regards her moral position on the Continent. Diplomatically she was a helot in Europe, and if Bismarck fancied he found her, as in 1875, displaying signs of an independent new lease of life, he instantly threatened her with another war. It was Bismarck's deep-rooted conviction that the only sure way of keeping France in leading-strings was to further the success of the Republicans. His idea was that a Republic would be weaker than any other form of French government. At the same time he feared above all things a coalition against Germany in Europe, as over and over again he admitted to his friend Busch. As a logical consequence of this anxious dread he aimed always at keeping France isolated in Europe. The principle was quite simple. France was never to be allowed to have any friends.

In order to compass this end he invented what looked like an extraordinarily ingenious plan. Of this plan Jules Ferry and M. Hanotaux were the happy, but unwitting, instruments.

Every one knows how eagerly Bismarck wished to be taken as a plain, blunt man, an "honest broker," as he phrased it, ever ready to arrange reasonable terms in the interests of a stable Europe. And here is the way he hit upon to further his cardinal principle of holding the noose of the Treaty of Frankfort tightly round the neck of his fallen foe, while still giving her rope enough to make outside spectators think she was free in all her movements.

Bismarck informed France that he had no objection whatever to seeing her expand as a colonial Power. He went even further. He assured her that he would even help her, and back her, in all her colonial projects, thus manifesting his genuine good-will, his generosity, even, toward her. It had not been his aim to crush France, but only to give her a lesson while securing German unity. At all events, whatever anybody else might think, if she wished to take Tunis or Tongking, or the whole of Africa if she liked, it was all the same to him and to Germany. So much was said openly, and the French Foreign Office, under the direction of Jules Ferry, lost no time in taking the Chancellor at his word. Was it not a glorious derivative, a balm for French despair, a means of nursing French energy, and the best, at all events the only, way for France to maintain her traditions, to hold her own as a Great Power, while she was restoring her shattered resources at home? But what the Chancellor did not say openly, and what he really thought, was this: "If I let France go on gathering colonial sugar-plums all over the globe, it won't be very long before she will have such a basketful that her neighbors will be jealous. If I egg her on to taking Tunis, for instance, Italy, which already distrusts her as a Catholic Power, will be furious, and I shall be able to do with the House of Savoy whatever I like, even force her into an Alliance with her mortal enemy, the Hapsburgs. In the same way if France, who is already at the sword's point with England in Egypt and in Siam, goes on trekking away into the Sahara, exploring the Niger and the Congo, quarreling with Methodist clergymen in Madagascar, and making herself generally obnoxious to British Imperialists all over the planet, England will more than ever have to rely on me; my rôle as honest broker in the interests of a stable Europe, based on the status quo of the Treaty of Frankfort, will be by so much enhanced. In fact, my plan is a simple and an elegant one. It weakens all the Powers save Germany; at all events it obliges France to go on eating German humble-pie while gobbling British colonial pie until England becomes so infuriated that in her wrath she may at last step in and finish my task of 1870 this time really wiping France off the map."

Such was the Bismarckian plan, and I have given it almost in Bismarck's own words. This any one can verify in the Busch Memoirs and elsewhere. I have had it, moreover, on a memorable occasion from the lips of Bismarck's successor, Prince Hohenlohe. This plan remained the basis of German foreign policy for about twenty-five years—from 1875 to nearly 1900. For almost this entire period it worked flawlessly. Everything that Bismarck had foreseen fell true. Jules Ferry played the game exactly according to the rules fixed by the great political arbiter of the sports in Europe. The matches arranged by Bismarck became more and more exciting. Standing at one side, wearing a sardonic grin, he watched the French driving the Italians and the British from region after region on which they had set their covetous eyes, and raising up at the four corners of the habitable earth a host of jealous foes. To be sure, a little handful of keen-sighted Frenchmen, among whom was M. Clemenceau, saw the risks of the policy of colonial expansion for France, without understanding any more than Bismarck did its singular advantages. M. Clemenceau and his friends pierced the trick of Bismarck, and clamored to their colleagues and countrymen: "Take care. We are dissipating our energies, scattering our forces, weakening ourselves in Europe. We should harbor our resources to avenge Alsace-Lorraine." But Ferry would not listen, and though he fell for his services in securing for France an empire in Indo-China, his successors went on in the glorious path which he had opened up, and along which Germany beheld Frenchmen advancing with the conviction that they were marching to their doom. Meanwhile, however, France had obtained in the space of a single generation a glorious empire. By 1890, on her possessions, as on those of England, the sun never set. And when at last—as one of the consequences of the economic and industrial expansion growing out of the new conditions created by the German victories over France, a state of things largely unforeseen by Bismarck—Germany perceived that she, too, had a future on the water, and needed markets, and could make good use of colonies, she suddenly awoke to the fact that there was hardly a single corner of the globe that had not been preempted either by England or France, and that the wonderful Bismarckian plan had resulted so far in handing over to her two rivals and enemies all the desirable spots on the planet. Unless England and France came to blows the whole gigantic scheme would thus be proved to be a deception altogether colossal. Germany's only hope was war between these Powers.

Part VI

Now, the reader is here at the very heart of the subject. Let him not suppose that he has lost sight of M. Delcassé. While Jules Ferry and M. Hanotaux were the statesmen who attached their names by the force of things to the epoch of the colonial expansion of France, a policy which seemed to serve German ends because it led almost mathematically to war between France and England for the glory of the Deutschtum, M. Delcassé was the statesman who, when England and France had been thus fatefully and logically brought to bay in the desert, the swords of Kitchener and Marchand upraised, dared give to the French Knight of Fashoda the order to stay the blow and to return the weapon to its scabbard. Mark you, M, Delcassé had, himself, as Minister for the Colonies, been among the most distinguished and responsible of the French statesmen who had directed the policy of their country against British colonial rivalry. Side by side with M. Hanotaux, who, however, as Foreign Minister, had the responsibility before the world, he had pursued the great policy of colonial expansion conceived by Ferry, and helped to wrest from England many a coveted strip of African soil or now and then a Pacific island. When the event of Fashoda occurred no one better than he could measure the full extent of the humiliation. But, unlike M. Hanotaux, he had not labored in the open. It was not his public responsibility that was at stake. As one of the statesmen most competent in foreign and colonial questions he was chosen, therefore, when M. Hanotaux's usefulness was thus ended, to direct the destinies of France.

There were two roads to be followed. One led to Berlin. That was the one that had been followed for more than twenty years. It was the one that had carried the French people farther and farther away from Alsace and Lorraine, and that had brought them face to face with disaster at Fashoda. The other road, an utterly untried one, a strange, new path through an undiscovered country, was the road to London. A single further step on the road to Berlin would certainly lead to war with England, M. Delcassé did not hesitate. He chose peace with England. It had suddenly dawned on him, as it dawned, indeed, at the same time on British statesmen, that both France and England had all along been playing into Germany's hands. Fashoda was their Damascus Road. They beheld together the full diabolic ingenuity of the Iron Chancellor's combinazione. And with this knowledge came a quick decision. France and England must compose their differences. Quicker said than done. But no quicker said than tried, instantly, with a firm resolution, and with no other end than to serve the cause of European peace—with no ulterior motive, no arrière pensée of any kind, as I can myself testify—M. Delcassé made overtures to the British Government for the settlement of all the difficulties that had accumulated during the epic years of England's collision with France on the colonial battlefields of two hemispheres. If M. Delcassé, upon whom fell the task of extricating his country from the diplomatic blind-alley called "Fashoda," had accepted the solution of war with England he would have completely fulfilled the Bismarckian plan.

He would have made out of the broad yet tentative base of German foreign policy a sort of reinforced concrete solid enough to bear the weight of all the heavy diplomatic artillery that Germany would care to place on it for yet another generation. By adopting, on the contrary, an unexpected policy of amicable relations with England and with the Mediterranean Powers, the whole Bismarckian scaffolding fell to the ground. The German Foreign Office had reared a score of diplomatic structures on the foundation of the one principle that France must be isolated in Europe, and that never, whatever else might happen, should England and France become friends. In the space of eighteen months all the quarrels of these secular enemies had been liquidated. The centuries from Joan of Arc to Kruger were miraculously wiped out. Sentiment thrives solely in the soil of common interest; interest alone unites peoples. England and France were now united in a common peace. How simple a matter would it have been for Germany, whom no one dreamed of harming, to adjust her national dreams and her legitimate ambitions to the pacific ideals behind this new Understanding between the ancient enemies! This was the desire of both France and England, as I can, if need be, prove. Germany clung tenaciously, on the contrary, to the old Bismarckian conception. Instead of sweeping away the fallen timbers of his now shattered plan she piously picked them all up, and sought to restore a construction no longer adaptable to European international conditions. One idea, and one only, now took possession of the German Foreign Office. This idea was to break up the Understanding between France and England. From 1904, the date of the Entente, to the fall of M. Delcassé she had no other policy. All her diplomatic manoeuvres moved in concentric circles round this central point, and when finally all other efforts failed she succeeded, by the classic Bismarckian methods which the Chancellor's henchman, Busch, has revealed in a famous book, in frightening France into dropping the pilot that had enabled her to weather the storm of Fashoda. Thereupon began, under Prince Von Bülow, the long history of the Moroccan dispute between France and Germany which culminated in the famous despatch of the Panther to Agadir, and brought the world in 1911 to the very brink of the abyss.

Germany's quarrel with France was that she had ceased to contribute to the success of the admirable plan of the great Bismarck. France is a highly civilized, a pacific, not to say pacifist, Power, and she would have probably gone on conforming to this ingenious combinazione if she had not, in consequence of her loyalty to it, suddenly found herself face to face with war. To avoid war after Fashoda she resolved to swallow her pride and to "make up" with England. Peace with England and peace in Europe were her only aims. Germany, however, interpreted her conduct in coming to terms with England as an unfriendly act toward her. By much brooding over the consequences of this unexpected, this really incredible, new situation, Germany even got to thinking that she was being persecuted. She accused France and England of wantonly trying to encircle her and to diminish her power.

The statesman, M. Delcassé, who had had thrust upon him the dread responsibility of consoling his compatriots for the humiliation of Fashoda, and who managed to do what was expected of him, by the simple device of a friendly understanding with the whilom foe, became for the Germans the counterpart in diabolic ingenuity of their Bismarck. He is not that. He is simply a clear-sighted statesman of quick decision and resource, indefatigable in the service of his country, who has had the singular good fortune to attach his name to the great measure of international justice and comity which was the origin of the present balance of power in Europe, and but for whom and for whose coadjutors—unless the same rôle precisely had been played at exactly the same time by some one else—France would certainly already have lost Champagne and the two Burgundies, while the British Empire would already have begun to yaw amid the Sargasso Sea, where lie already the hulks of the Venetian argosies.

These facts are the commonplace facts of history for all observers in Europe. There was no possibility, therefore, of my being in any way surprised when there fell from the lips of the Belgian whom I met just the other day at Havre, while the British soldiers tramped singing to their camp, these words: "It is not Belgium that has saved Europe. The savior of Europe is M. Delcassé."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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